October 03 2009
Simon Whitman, an Anglophile financier from New York, was an early casualty of the credit crunch. And at the age of 52, the former CEO was finished. In high finance he was an old man. He was virtually unemployable. And so, rather than struggle to find an office job in the City, he chose to reinvent himself by following what for years he had believed was his true calling.
Financed by his City payoff, which he described as “more of a jaundiced adieu than a golden goodbye”, he decided to settle down to write his great novel. He had two singular advantages over other unknown writers: he was related to the great American poet Walt Whitman, and he had a cousin who was bound up with the organisation of Cheltenham Literature Festival. The former qualification made it relatively easy for him to find an English agent and publisher, while the latter connection would, he believed, launch him on the world’s creative stage.
The Cheltenham Literature Festival, which celebrates its 60th birthday this year, is the longest-running literary festival in the world. Every October more than 100,000 visitors spend a week in the Regency spa town rubbing shoulders and attending lectures by authors, journalists and moderate broadcasters, plus a clutch of politicians and celebrities, who have usually penned self-serving tomes. Quite why anybody should want to pay to listen to a second-rate New Labour minister expanding on his biography of life under the whip or hear a former metropolitan media hack talk about his book on organic farming was a mystery to the earnest Simon. Writing, he believed, was the highest form of art, and the writer of fiction was its only true artist. He was the colourist of phrase and dauber of metaphor.
This was why the former financier, who considered himself un homme sérieux, felt that his invitation to speak at the Festival was more than justified, despite the fact that some jealous critics had claimed that his lengthy book, Dice Men: A Modern Satire on Banking in London, to be little more than vanity publishing. However, he consoled himself with the knowledge that he had received a couple of favourable reviews in the more obscure corners of the financial press and that sales had scraped into four figures.
His subsequent lecture, “High Literature and Low Finance”, was on the first Saturday of the Festival, a day when such distinguished figures as Sebastian Faulks and the broadcaster Jeremy Paxman would be in town. Unfortunately, Simon was unlikely to bump into either man (the former of whom he considered his equal) because he was speaking at a tiny theatre at 9.30am rather than in the evening at the stately Town Hall where the literary and broadcasting stars tended to shine. However, he was not dismayed; it was early in his career and the audience of five was, he believed, the beginning of a loyal following that would once more make the Whitman name synonymous with great literature.
And, anyway, that night he was dining at The Daffodil restaurant, a former art deco cinema that nowadays describes itself as “a caption of sophistication” offering “fine dining at its finest”. It was where Donna Renney, the chief executive of the Festival, held court and one of the places where the literary great and good tended to gather.
And it was there, as Simon was tucking into his “chargrilled spatchcock of poussin”, that he was approached by a New York literary agent who couldn’t believe that Walt Whitman’s great-great-grandson was writing in England. He wanted to buy the paperback and film rights of Dice Men for the US. That was the moment that Simon knew he’d been right to follow his instincts – he was on the threshold of greatness.
Six months later, the US edition of his book arrived. Much to Simon’s surprise, the title had been changed to A Rogue in Red Suspenders (suspenders being the American word for braces). Furthermore, the cover, which originally featured a detail from Scene in a Gaming House by William Hogarth, now boasted a lap dancer in fishnet stockings and lobster-coloured braces, while the strapline on the back cover read, “High rolling and hot sex in old London Town – from the kinsman of the great Walt Whitman”.
Simon was not expecting an invitation to speak at Cheltenham again this year.